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Understanding the National Data Exchange (N-DEx) System

By Chief Mark A. Marshall, Smithfield (VA) PD
Vice President, International Association of Chiefs of Police

Sponsored by Cisco Systems

Information sharing has become the new buzzword in law enforcement circles. Clearly it has become a mission critical component in public safety. With over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, many utilize some type of computerized database to collect incident and investigative information in their respective jurisdictions.

Moving this data across disparate systems and political boundaries into the hands of those who “need to know” has been and continues to be the challenge. Although the technology is there, the structure and process required to “make it happen” has yielded limited results. The 9/11 Commission report stated “the biggest impediment to connecting the dots is the human or systemic resistance to sharing information.” 

A national program that addresses those deficiencies is vital to the safety of our communities and our nation. An ideal system would capture data from all participating law enforcement agencies regardless of size and convert it into actionable relevant information. This concept became the genesis of the N-DEx, the National Data Exchange project. 

Information sharing environment
Since 9/11, numerous committees and commissions have studied the barriers to effective data sharing and information exchange. With so many agencies, the size and scope of the problem makes solving it a daunting task. Naturally, there have been repeated calls for federal authorities to coordinate, develop and implement a solution. 

Given the nature and context of policing in the US however, a federal "top-down" answer would not be effective. It is local and state law enforcement that provides the majority of law enforcement service in this country. It is the local, tribal, county and state agencies that capture and retain the vast majority of data from which "nuggets of information" can be mined to protect our homeland.

Whether the crime is a local/regional crime spree or a more sinister plot that has macro implications at an international level, the dots of data that need connecting most likely reside in non-federal, disparate systems. Consequently, a number of regional and state systems have been developed ... and successfully implemented. But, connecting these projects together and bringing the thousands of other law enforcement records management systems under "one umbrella" is a tough challenge. 

Developing a national program on this scale requires a multi-tiered approach that practices the “art of inclusion” with all of its partners. The U.S. Department of Justice and most particularly the FBI’s CJIS Division was tasked with this assignment.

To provide DOJ with a consensus statement about the project from non-federal law enforcement, a nation-wide position paper about N-DEx was developed and adopted by the IACP, Major Cities Chiefs Association, National Sheriffs Association, and the Major County Sheriffs Association in August 2005. This unified position expresses three central points, namely:

1. First develop a "Statement of Requirements" for the NDEx Program that is designed with local law enforcement input and utilization in mind. System requirements should be validated through a group of law enforcement practitioners, including representatives of the IACP, MCC, NSA, and MCSA and coordinated by the FBI CJIS Advisory Policy Board (APB). Without an agreed upon and supported "Statement of Requirements" we believe the efforts of the FBI and DOJ will fail.

2. Based on the agreed upon "Statement of Requirements", prepare "Funding Projections" that reflect the anticipated costs for each phase of the Project to include the development and implementation of NDEx at all levels of law enforcement - local, tribal, regional, state and federal.

3. Based upon the "Statement of Requirements" and the "Funding Projections", the FBI and DOJ should formalize a process through which they are able to effectively communicate a consistent message about the Project’s mission, goals, strategy and status. Clearly documented roles and responsibilities of local, tribal, regional, state and federal law enforcement partners, coupled with active participation throughout the Project, will facilitate “buy-in” from all levels of justice, and also ensure a successful Project. 

The IACP, MCC, NSA, and MCSA, representing the leadership of the nation's law enforcement community, strongly believe that these issues are critical to the success of NDEx or any Information Sharing Project. If the FBI and DOJ also agree that these are critical issues that must be addressed before moving forward, we will work closely with the FBI and DOJ in the design and realistic testing of a coordinated information sharing project”.

This document was adopted by all four of the major U.S. law enforcement organizations in August 2005. The CJIS Advisory Policy Board (APB), which had been tasked with sharing management of N-DEx with the FBI, agreed with the formula adopted by law enforcement. Most importantly, immediately after the position paper was published, the FBI CJIS Division’s management also concurred with these points. 

Tom Bush, FBI Assistant Director, has stated that he considers the position paper to constitute “a contract” with the associations regarding the development of N-Dex. To help ensure the enculturization of the paper’s principals, an N-DEx advisory panel representative of the law enforcement community and subject matter experts on information sharing was expanded to ensure a local and state design focus.

These stakeholders and experts were empanelled to develop the Concept of Operations (ConOps) that is the guiding development and implementation of this national mission. The basic purpose of the N-DEx ConOps is to ensure that the project follows a "locally designed and nationally coordinated homeland security strategy." To our benefit, the premise is being fulfilled.

The Concept of Operations provided much needed clarity in defining mission and goal statements, outlining how will it be implemented, and providing law enforcement managers information on the benefits and relevancy of participation.

This article borrows information and text from the draft CONOPS to describe N-DEx and discuss the related issues. Additionally, given recent federal program budget cuts, it is essential that costs are identified and funding streams located for this project. Localities and states will be hard-pressed to provide funding from their own already cash-starved budgets.

A national program of this magnitude establishes a resource that enhances the safety of all citizens: as such it logically requires a federal funding stream. This article will define each of these issues and its status.


The vision of N-DEx is to share complete, accurate, timely and useful information across jurisdictional boundaries and to provide new investigative tools that enhance the nation’s ability to fight crime and terrorism.

The following scenarios are re-printed from the N-DEx CONOPS. They are for example purposes only:

Scenario: A Detroit Police Department detective is investigating a string of gas station robberies in which a male with a handgun threatens employees before fleeing with cash. The commonality to the robberies is that the man always wears a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap and a black jacket.

The detective searches N-DEx for the phrases " Milwaukee Brewers” and the words “jacket," “cap," “hat,” or “ball cap.” N-DEx returned too many results for
effective analysis so the detective refined the search to specify a geographical area, Michigan and  neighboring states.

N-DEx locates a file about an FBI
investigation in Chicago into a serial bank robber who wears a Milwaukee
Brewers cap.

Outcome: N-DEx provides the Detroit detective with contact information for the FBI agent

investigating the matter which potentially involves the same suspect.


Scenario: A New Jersey State Police (NJSP) officer stops Joseph Jones for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. After obtaining Jones’ permission, the officer searches the vehicle and finds marijuana. He arrests Jones for the marijuana possession. 

The NJSP submits an incident report to N-DEx on the stop and arrest. N-DEx notifies the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) that the home address provided by Jones correlates to an address in a case it is working, involving a high-level member of a drug trafficking organization. 


Outcome:  Because the PSP chose to control access to the drug trafficking case due to its sensitivity, N-DEx does not allow NJSP to see the correlation nor notify NJSP about the correlation, giving PSP the control to evaluate whether or not to contact the NJSP about Jones.

At its core, N-DEx allows law enforcement agencies to submit their incident data to a central repository where they are compared against the incidents which are already on file to identify linkages between persons, places, things or similar activities. The incidents can then remain on file to be compared against all future incoming incidents. Submitting agencies will receive notice if linkages result from their submissions or from subsequent submissions by other agencies.

Local, tribal, and state law enforcement officers/investigators will be principal beneficiaries of this program. N-DEx will allow participating law enforcement agencies to detect relationships between people, places, things and crime characteristics, to link information across jurisdictions, and allow officers to "connect the dots" between data that is not apparently related—without information overload.

In addition, N-DEx will provide contact information and collaboration tools for agencies working on cases of mutual interest. N-DEx is not a statistical repository in which data is “dumped into a cyberspace”. Relevance to the operations of local, tribal, and state law enforcement missions is a core function of the N-DEx program. 

• The key success factor

All participants in the planning process agree that:

1. N-DEx is being built to support law enforcement investigations, and that it is built on the foundation of local law enforcement records systems. 
2. Ensuring that N-DEx meets the real-world needs of law enforcement has been identified as the key success factor for N-DEx and will continue to guide the program throughout its implementation and operation.

• Not a Statistical Reporting System

The APB has indicated unequivocally—and the FBI agrees —that N-DEx is an information sharing system and is not intended to be used for crime statistics reporting.  N-DEx will use the standardization provided by NIBRS data elements to describe portions of the incident data.  The APB made it clear through approved motions that:

1. N-DEx and the UCR/National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) are separate systems.
2. Information submitted to N-DEx for information sharing will not be used to derive or publish crime statistics.
3. An agency does not need to participate in NIBRS nor change their current method of UCR summary reporting to participate in N-DEx.
4. Those agencies that do participate in both NIBRS and N-DEx may submit their NIBRS data through N-DEx, if they so choose.

• N-DEx has intelligence value, but is not an Intelligence System

N-DEx is not an intelligence system and will not contain intelligence data. Logically, however, the N-DEx information and tools will provide value to the intelligence community.

• Ownership of data

Each participating law enforcement agency which submits data to the program retains ownership and management control over its data. N-DEx will supply system controls to allow agencies to decide what data to share, as well as who can access it and under what circumstances.

These controls will enable agencies to participate in accordance with the local applicable laws and policies governing the dissemination and privacy of their data.

• Local records collection practices are not affected

N-DEx does not require that a police department or sheriffs office gather more information about an incident than they do currently.  There is no minimum data set which must be submitted to N-DEx for participation.

While it is generally true that an agency will derive greater value from submission of more complete data (statistically, more complete information results in a more complete analysis and comparison), each participating agency can choose what subset of data they wish to share from their local records management system (RMS).

Additionally, formats and methodologies for electronic submission are being designed so that N-DEx can provide a process by which agencies without an automated local RMS capability may participate and/or submit their data to the system. The principal design, however, is being constructed for electronic submission from local systems

• Leverages existing standards, systems and networks

Many police departments and sheriffs offices already partner in an existing trusted information sharing system at the local, state or regional level. These systems already have governance models, procedures, and processes by which they are sharing information within their respective domains.

Participation in N-DEx will complement and expand those capabilities, using a model of incident data aggregation that did not exist on a national scale. N-DEx will provide well defined integration points which allow for inclusion of these already established groups, technologies, etc. into the broader N-DEx information sharing architecture.

Leveraging these existing infrastructures can limit the demands upon local law enforcement agencies for multiple points of submission for their data.  In summary, through a variety of options, N-DEx can link existing systems together while still serving agencies that desire to provide their data directly to N-DEx...

• Incremental deployment

The initial focus on N-DEx is to providing the  basic and powerful capabilities associated with integrating disparate systems of incident and investigative data and providing tools for searching and sharing this law enforcement information.

N-DEx will be designed to however to allow services, capabilities, and data sources beyond these basic police RMS data and analysis functions. N-DEx will be developed and deployed incrementally with additional capabilities, data sources and uses implemented over time.

• Classification

Only data classified as Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU) or below will be permitted within N-DEx.

The benefits and potential of this project for all of us in the law enforcement community are significant. The next article will discuss the unique features of the system, how it will work, and its integration into the law enforcement landscape including current and projected deployment timetables.

Additionally, participation is certainly predicated on costs. Funding is intimately tied to widespread adoption. Thus current and proposed funding processes/streams will be addressed.   

About the author

Mark A. Marshall has been in state and local law enforcement for twenty-one years. At present he is the Chief of Police in Smithfield, Virginia and has held that position for over 15 years. He is currently the Chairman for the LInX regional information-sharing project. This initiative includes the sharing of data between local, state and federal agencies and in 2005 won International Association of Chief’s of Police (IACP) award for Excellence in Technology.

He was elected as a Vice-President (2006) for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and is currently 4th VP on the Board of Officers. As part of his duties for IACP, he has oversight of all of the technology committees. They include the Communications and Technology committee, CJIS committee, and the Law Enforcement Information Management (LEIM) section. He is the appointed representative for IACP on the Advisory Policy Board (APB) for the FBI’s CJIS division. Additionally, he serves on the APB’s Information Sharing Subcommittee. He is a past Board member of the Law Enforcement Information Standards Council (LEITSC). LEITSC has developed data standards for record management systems/computer aided dispatch systems that are nationally accepted.

He sits on a variety of committees and commissions with an emphasis on technology, governance, and policy impact. Chief Marshall is the past president of the Hampton Road’s Chief’s Association and is currently on the executive board with the Virginia Association of Chief’s of Police.

His education includes a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) from Old Dominion University and a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology from Saint Leo University. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and the Police Executive Leadership program through the University of Richmond and the Virginia Police Chiefs Foundation. He has authored numerous published articles and regularly conducts seminars and presentations at national and international venues.

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